Budget Strain Colors Kamenetz’s First Year at Helm of Balto. Co.

… Some want county executive to broaden vision …


By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

7:55 PM EST, December 8, 2011

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took office a year ago this week, promising to make Baltimore County “the ideas county of the region.”

Since then, amid growing stress on the county’s budget, his biggest accomplishment sounds less flashy: “paying our bills each month.”

The former county councilman has merged agencies, trimmed the government workforce to its smallest size in 25 years by cutting vacant positions, and plans to shrink it further through an early-retirement incentive. He says the work has paid off with the county’s continued AAA bond rating — and because the county hasn’t seen any furloughs, layoffs or tax increases.

But those moves have required time and energy, and some would like to see Kamenetz do more to deliver on the promise to bring ideas to the county of 805,000 people.

“I think he needs to begin thinking about a broad vision once the economy improves,” said 5th District Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who added that he’s been pleased with the way Kamenetz has handled fiscal issues. “We need to be thinking beyond the recession and … focusing on revitalization of places like downtown Towson, infrastructure needs, schools.”

Kamenetz, a Democrat, also has drawn fire for some of his political appointments, with critics calling them politics as usual. And some on the County Council say he needs to spend more time developing relationships with members of the mostly new panel — though people who work with Kamenetz say the sometimes-brash politician has made efforts to listen to others and build coalitions in his new job.

In 2012, Kamenetz plans to continue budgetary restraint, he said. He also wants to put more public records online, and said he’s working on plans to revitalize Sparrows Point in the southeastern county.

“I don’t lie awake at night thinking about the problems that we have,” he said. “I really come into work each day thinking about the opportunities.”

Kamenetz says the hard times have helped his administration zero in on what works in government. Shortly after taking office, for instance, he announced technology initiatives to help streamline agencies’ work.

“In general, the economy has helped us to focus on priorities,” he said.

Budget concerns

When Kamenetz took office, the county was facing declining revenues in both property and income taxes for the first time. He balanced his $1.6 billion budget, unveiled in April, using $61 million pulled from reserves.

“During my 16 years on the council, we never faced the economic situation that we face today,” he said.

Those numbers have colored Kamenetz’s start at the helm of Maryland’s largest county. Many who work with him point to fiscal matters as the dominant theme of his first year.

“That’s been the No. 1 issue, is having to deal with the shortages of revenues coming into the county,” said County Council President John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. “He’s been prudent with the resources that we have. He’s trying to do more with less.”

In hard times, there’s no money for fancy programs, which can be difficult for elected officials, said Kamenetz’s predecessor, former County Executive Jim Smith.

“Sometimes you have to plateau for a while because of economic circumstances. And I think that’s where Baltimore County is right now, and I think he’s managing that as well as one can do. It affects your vision for the county,” Smith said. “I don’t think he’s allowed himself much time [for a] vision because it’d be a somewhat frustrating exercise if you knew you didn’t have the resources to fund it.”

The tight money situation also left less time for getting to know council members, Olszewski said. Five out of the seven council members were new to the job this year, and both they and Kamenetz were getting their feet wet.

“Having to deal with these economic issues, I don’t think he had as much time as he would like to spend building relationships with other council members in the beginning of his term,” Olszewski said. “Now that he’s gotten a handle on that, I think he’s gotten better with working with the new members of the council.”

Economic development

Kamenetz said that despite the dreary economy, the county has made progress on economic development, pointing, for instance, to plans to redevelop the Owings Mill Mall and the former Solo Cup property.

Also this year, Kamenetz created a task force to examine what he called archaic liquor license laws for restaurants, and unveiled an ethics reform package that County Council members are weighing now.

Kamenetz’s years on the council gave him a keen understanding of policy and fiscal issues, said state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Pikesville Democrat.

“There are lots of issues that people can get fired up about, but the fiscal health of our county is paramount to the other issues,” Zirkin said.

At a Perry Hall Improvement Association meeting a few months ago, Kamenetz discussed taxes and government efficiency, speaking “with a very measured, conservative approach,” Marks said.

“And I think it was really well received,” said Marks, one of two new Republicans on the council.

Kamenetz “has been relatively bipartisan in his approach,” said Marks, who praised the county executive’s handling of the county budget.

Kamenetz’s opponent in the general election, Republican Ken Holt, said he would like to see a more proactive approach to engaging small businesses.

“I want to see more interaction with young, growing businesses,” said Holt, who is CFO of a tech startup called Woofound.

Campaign promises

Since he’s been in office only a year, it is hard to judge how Kamenetz will keep campaign promises, said Cheryl Bost, past president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

Bost said she was pleased that Kamenetz seems to be “trying to get sensible oversight of the school system.”

During the campaign, Kamenetz said he would work to improve school infrastructure, and give unions a seat at the table.

“This coming budget I believe will be a true test of whether he’s going to live up to that or not,” Bost said.

John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, also said it’s too soon to truly judge Kamenetz. Contract negotiations will be the barometer of his commitment to labor, said Ripley, who’s “cautiously optimistic” that Kamenetz’s cost-saving efforts will help keep county employees on the job.

“I would have to say that the report card is still out,” Ripley said.

While Kamenetz had a reputation among critics of being arrogant as a councilman, some in local government say they have seen a transformation.

“During the course of the campaign, I saw less of that and more of a conciliatory individual who was willing to listen and not be so narrow-minded on issues,” Olszewski said.

Kamenetz has been meeting regularly with state lawmakers from the county, Democratic state Sen. Jim Brochin said.

“I would say that as councilman, there were times that I found him to be a little standoffish,” Brochin said. “But as county executive, I have not found him to be that at all … I find him to be inclusive. I find him to be someone who wants to build coalitions.”

Some council members were unhappy with how he handled his ethics proposal, saying he didn’t give them time to review it before publicly announcing the package.

“I think the county executive needs to continually remember what is was like to be a County Council member,” Marks said. “The ethics legislation was one example where a number of council members felt they should have been consulted before that was announced. I think that’s a learning process.”

‘Same old stuff’

Kamenetz drew fire for some of the appointments he made at the beginning of his tenure.

One was the appointment of the prominent land-use lawyer Arnold Jablon to head the county’s department of inspections, permits and approval.

“It showed right from the gate that he was pro-development,” said Alan Zukerberg, a community activist and president of the Pikesville Community Corp. “I just thought it was a major mistake to put Mr. Jablon back into the henhouse.”

Tim Holland, president of the Battle Grove Democratic Club, said he also questioned some of Kamenetz’s appointments. He pointed, for instance, to Kamenetz’s decision to put chief of staff Don Mohler’s brother, Mike, in charge of the county liquor board. Holland’s club backed then-Councilman Joe Bartenfelder in the Democratic primary, believing he would be better for the blue-collar area.

Still, Holland said he applauds Kamenetz’s efforts to cut costs.

“I’ve seen some positive, and I’ve seen some same old stuff,” Holland said.


Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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